Welcome to May Madness in the NBA.
After a whirlwind Sunday in which every team in the league played, the 2021 NBA Play-In Tournament games are set. The Lakers battle the Warriors and the Grizzlies clash with the Spurs in the Western Conference, while the Wizards take on the Celtics and the Hornets play the Pacers in the Eastern Conference. And like an NCAA Tournament game, anything can happen.
While we all know the star players — such as the Lakers LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Warriors' Stephen Curry — will show up on the big stage, what about some of the lesser-known players who could play a pivotal role in the play-in tournament?
Below, we've identified the single biggest X-Factor on eight teams in the 2021 NBA Play-In Tournament.
Los Angeles Lakers: Talen Horton-Tucker
LeBron James' health might be the biggest X-factor in the entire NBA playoffs, but that's too obvious.
But if we had to pick one player, it would be Talen Horton-Tucker, the 20-year old guard who has improved immensely in his second season. Amid injuries and inconsistency plaguing the Lakers' roster, THT has been consistent all season, playing in 65 games. But most importantly, he provides a much-needed skill for this Lakers squad: playmaking and rim penetration.
Horton-Tucker uses his lengthy wingspan on defense to disrupt opposing players, and he’s not afraid of the big moment when the situation calls for some gumption.
Horton-Tucker's usage in their tilt with the Warriors is another key X-factor. Will THT receive enough meaningful minutes to make an impact or will it be the LeBron and AD show?
Golden State Warriors: Jordan Poole
Curry could absolutely take over the game with another iconic performance, but let's dig a little deeper for the Dubs' X-factor.
The one silver lining of dealing with so many injuries is that the Warriors have been able to develop Jordan Poole as a key reserve.
Poole struggled in his rookie season, shooting 33% from the field and 27% from three-point range. But Poole has been a vital sparkplug off the bench ever since he made his way back into Steve Kerr’s good graces in early March. Poole possesses that unteachable swagger that Golden State craves outside of Curry.
The former Michigan product isn’t afraid to take some off-the-dribble three-pointers or attack the basket as a creator and finisher. Since returning to the lineup, he’s sporting 43/35/87 shooting splits that are by no means otherworldly, but they’re good enough considering Golden State's team needs. Poole injects some much-needed firepower into the Warriors’ offense, especially when Curry takes a breather.
Poole is also strong in transition as opposing players scramble to find Curry. The 21-year-old is producing 1.35 points per possession, good for the 88th percentile league-wide. Also — small sample-size alert — Poole has ascended his past five games, averaging 21.8 points on 56/45/95 shooting splits.
Memphis Grizzlies: Jaren Jackson Jr.
Jaren Jackson Jr. is easily the most talented player on this list, but his injury-riddled season makes him the Grizzlies' biggest X-factor against the Spurs and potentially beyond.
In our latest NBA Power Rankings, we discussed how triple-J raises Memphis' ceiling despite still knocking off some rust after missing a majority of the campaign. Jackson Jr. is still getting his basketball legs while the Grizzlies have been outscored by over 10 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court, which is awful. But if he's able to get back into form for the play-in games, JJJ could be the deciding factor.
Jackson Jr. has a sprawling 7-foot-4 wingspan, and has averaged 1.5 blocks per game throughout his career. The biggest aspect of his game that has declined since returning has been his shooting, where he’s converting only 42% overall and 28% from deep. As always, an area he can compensate in is defense, where he’s always had a huge impact.
Over the past 10 games, Jackson Jr. averages 2.8 blocks per game in wins and only one block per game in losses. When he shares the court with Jonas Valanciunas, the Grizzlies have outscored opponents and sport a top five defense. So even if Jackson Jr. can’t get his shooting on track, he can still have an outsized impact on the game. But if he’s able to rediscover his jump shot, he could potentially propel Memphis past the play in.
San Antonio Spurs: Lonnie Walker IV
It's sad to see the once-dominant Spurs spiral into mediocrity, but even though they finished the season six games under .500, San Antonio still has a chance to shock the NBA world and make the playoffs.
For that to happen they'll need Lonnie Walker IV to step up.
One of the most unique players in the league, Walker strays from the prototypical Spurs star in that he's a reckless freight train raging toward the basket. His numbers on the season are pedestrian at best: 11.2 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.7 assists on meh shooting splits.
But X-factors aren't just about stats. Walker has plenty of potential to take over a play-in game. He can get any shot he wants. From a lightning-quick first step to his quick-trigger shooting release, everything can look so easy for him at times.
Walker still hasn’t gained the coaching staff’s full trust, as evidenced by the fact that he’s played over 30 minutes just 15 times this season. But in five of those 15 games, Walker has scored 31, 25, 24, 24 and 23 points. It’s clear that if he’s given enough leeway, he can be an offensive difference-maker.
Boston Celtics: Evan Fournier
Take a peek at Evan Fournier’s splits between his time in Orlando and Boston this season, and he looks like two different players. The Magic Fournier — a potentially phenomenal band name — averaged 19.7 points and 79% from the free-throw line for the Magic, and those numbers dropped to 13 points and 71% since he joined the Celtics at the trade deadline.
Context is important, though. Fournier contracted COVID-19 and alluded to dealing with migraines. This clearly affected Fournier who has recently improved his play a great deal. Over his past seven games, he’s resembled more than his old self, averaging 19.9 points, four rebounds and 4.7 assists on 56% from the field and 57% (!) from beyond the arc.
Boston was thin before losing Jaylen Brown to a wrist injury for the season, and they’ll need to lean on Fournier’s scoring and shooting ability while praying Kemba Walker plays like the healthy version of himself. Over that same seven-game timeframe, the Celtics have been over 12 points per 100 possessions better with Fournier on the court compared to when he rests. That is a gigantic difference, and if he’s able to shoulder huge minutes and stay efficient, the Celtics should survive the play-in tournament.
Washington Wizards: Daniel Gafford
There have been a lot of factors that contributed to the Wizards’ late-season surge, but perhaps the biggest difference has been the addition of Daniel Gafford. Since Gafford joined the Wizards at the trade deadline, they’ve won 17 of 23 games. In his Bulls tenure, Gafford showcased a lot of exciting big man skills but was constantly buried behind Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and Thaddeus Young.
Now that he’s joined a Wizards team that has completely embraced him, Gafford has thrived. At 22, Gafford is bursting with energy, and he’s contributing in so many positive ways. From bulldozing screens, hard rim cuts, staunch interior defense and quality rebounding instincts, Gafford has endeared himself quickly to Washington.
The Wizards are outscoring opponents by 7.2 points per 100 possessions with Gafford on the court, by far the fattest number among all players on the team. His per 36 numbers are no joke, either, averaging 20.6 points, 11.3 rebounds and 3.6 blocks. That's better than most starting centers, but it’s important to keep in mind that Gafford is part of a rare center-by-committee approach. He splits 48 minutes of big man play with Robin Lopez and Alex Len, which allows him to play even harder since he doesn’t have to exert energy for a full game.
In the playoffs, players such as Len and Lopez have historically been played off the court, but Gafford’s ability to guard opposing perimeter players will allow him to stay on the floor. The Wizards have sported the league’s sixth-best defense with Gafford patrolling the paint, and they’ll need him to anchor their backbone and dominate against the Celtics, who are susceptible to getting pounded by strong opposing frontcourts.
Charlotte Hornets: Malik Monk
We’ve reached the point of the season where we can trust Charlotte’s main three guards in LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier and Devonte’ Graham to show up. But if Charlotte has dreams of making any playoff noise, that will not be enough, especially with Gordon Hayward out against the Pacers.
Enter Malik Monk, whose career thus far has resembled a walking X-factor. After an exhilarating career at Kentucky, Monk struggled in his first three seasons in the NBA. But this season, he’s been a different player, converting over 40% of his three-point attempts and averaging 11.7 points in just over 20 minutes per game.
Monk has averaged 14.4 points in wins this season, but just 9.4 points in losses. He’s similar to Walker because in a moment’s notice, he can strike fire from beyond the arc, and use his relentless offensive motor to roast teams in a variety of ways. Monk is cooking in isolation opportunities, producing 1.07 points per possession, which ranks in the 86th percentile. He’s also shooting 46% on spot up shots, showcasing limitless range and confidence. And speaking of confidence, it’s one of the most important traits to possess in the playoffs.
Indiana Pacers: Oshae Brissett
After a solid career at Syracuse and a short stint riding the Raptors’ bench, Oshae Brissett has emerged as a key player ever since the Pacers scooped him up in April. The Pacers have been ravaged by injuries all season, but Brissett has come to the rescue as a gritty, reliable forward.
The 22-year-old has been a rock ever since Pacers coach Nate Bjorkgren inserted him into the starting lineup. Over his past 16 games, Brissett is pouring in 13.3 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 1.1 steals on over 42% from three-point range in 31 minutes per game. Brissett has mastered the role of a supporting cast member. Opponents shoot almost two percentage points worse than their averages when he is their primary defender and he’s transformed himself into a very efficient shooter.
The Pacers have already lost T.J. Warren while Malcolm Brogdon hasn’t played since April 29 and Myles Turner has played one game since April 7. It has placed a big burden on Domantas Sabonis and Caris LeVert. Both have stepped up to the plate but still need some help.
If Brissett stays solid and continues scoring, the Pacers may eke out a play-in game win or two.
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